|MV Saturn approaches Dunoon for the final sailing - Photo credit Stuart MacKillop|
As car ownership grew in the 1930s, the London Midland & Scottish Railway Company's shipping subsidiary, the Caledonian Steam Packet Company (CSP), began to draw up plans for car ferries on the prime Clyde routes. These were interrupted by the War but revived when peace returned and a car ferry service from Gourock to Dunoon eventually opened in 1954 with Scotland's first ever car ferry (by the same definition), the MV Arran. There followed two sister ships called Bute and Cowal and, between them, these three "ABC ferries" as they became known, covered the Dunoon service and another between Wemyss Bay and Rothesay which opened later in 1954.
|MV Arran on passage between Gourock & Dunoon in 1958. Photo credit Douglas Campbell|
|Hoist loading cars aboard an ABC ferry in a line drawing scanned from a late 60s CSP brochure|
The CSP (which changed its name to Caledonian MacBrayne in 1973 after merging with David MacBrayne Ltd that year) responded with plans to upgrade its Gourock-Dunoon service involving the installation of linkspans at both terminals and the ordering of two new ro-ro ferries, the Jupiter and the Juno which entered service in 1973.
But the CSP/Calmac had missed a trick somewhat in that its new service (which was replicated at Wemyss Bay to Rothesay in 1977 with a third new ship, the Saturn, which, with the 1973 sisters, were known as "the streakers") was not a totally "drive through" one like WF's (i.e. drive on via the ship's stern and off in the same direction via the bow or vice versa). Instead, vehicles would board over the stern of the ferry at Gourock (and Wemyss Bay) but disembark at Dunoon (and Rothesay) over a ramp in the ship's side landing on a linkspan let in at right angles to the pier face. Again, it was great advance on hoist loading but while the 90 degree turn on the car deck was not too much of a hardship for cars, it was no good for artics so, again, was not ideal.
|This view aft down the car deck of the Jupiter (1973) by Dave Forbes demonstrates the 90 degree turn needed to disembark at Dunoon|
|One of Calmac's "streaker" class ferries, MV Jupiter, on the firth while two WF ferries cross in the background. Photo credit Hugh Spicer|
|A single vehicle on the car deck of a ship designed to take 40 was not an uncommon sight. Photo credit Hugh Spicer|
The requirement to tender applied to all of Calmac's routes, not just Dunoon. But what set Dunoon apart was that it was the only route in the network which had a private sector competitor. The solution arrived at in 2006 was that all the other routes were offered in one bundle (Calmac won this tender but that's another story) while Dunoon was offered separately on the basis that the successful bidder would have to operate a car and passenger service but with no subsidy. Not surprisingly, nobody bid for this dubious privilege, not even Calmac! The result was that the Scottish Government simply continued to subsidise Calmac to run car ferries to Dunoon as before (except that the service was now run by a company called Cowal Ferries Ltd. However this operated under Calmac branding and management and with their ships, the familiar "streakers", so this was not a change the travelling public noticed.)
|Aboard the Jupiter - Picture credit Hugh Spicer|
The result of the tender was announced on 25 May 2011 and the winner was Argyll Ferries Ltd. This is in fact another subsidiary of Calmac although to avoid even the perception of any of the mistakes of the failed 2006 tender, this will operate under its own brand. The underbidders were Western Ferries and Clyde Marine Services (the operator of the passenger ferry to Kilcreggan). Not surprisingly, none offered to carry cars.
Argyll Ferries will be offering a much more frequent service over a much longer day than Calmac (Cowal Ferries) did using two vessels. One is a ferry called Banrion Chonamara acquired from Ireland where she had been serving the Aran Islands. Seen in profile on the extract from AF's website above, she has been renamed Argyll Flyer for the new Dunoon service. The other is a vessel which Calmac had had on charter for a number of years to give peak time sailings to Dunoon to supplement the sailings by the "streaker" car ferries: she is called Ali Cat and has now been purchased outright by AF.
|Ali Cat at Gourock - a bit of a rubber duck, lookswise IMO! - Photo credit Stuart MacKillop|
|MV Saturn sails away from Dunoon for the last time - Photo credit John Newth|
All grist to the mill of the nay-sayers - those who believe Western Ferries have been handed a monopoly. Well you didn't "vote with your wheels" and patronise Calmac so a classic case of you didn't use it so you lost it! No doubt the teething troubles of Argyll Ferries' new service will be ironed out shortly. It should be viewed as Calmac having gone back to its roots. The Caledonian Railway Company incorporated the CSP as a separate company in 1889 to circumvent legal diffulculties over, in effect, extending the rail network across the Firth of Clyde with ships. The same thing has been done in 2011 with the incorporation of Argyll Ferries.
|MV Arran - first ever Scottish car ferry between Gorock and Dunoon|